SAN ANTONIO – Goran Dragic(notes) spun the San Antonio Spurs in every direction, taking them to the rim for layups, throwing in one 3-pointer after another, and he wasn't done yet. Dragic drove hard into the lane once more, jabbed a couple feints at the Spurs and flipped in yet another remarkable shot. His own coach tossed up his hands in disbelief.
"Jesus Christ!" Alvin Gentry shouted.
Yes, the night belonged to Goran Almighty. His stunning 23 points in the final quarter lifted the Phoenix Suns to a 110-96 victory and gave them a 3-0 stranglehold on the series, and no one could say they saw this coming.
"We only expected 21 in the fourth quarter when we drafted him," deadpanned Suns general manager Steve Kerr.
In truth, the Suns saw enough in Dragic two years ago, and this speaks to the razor-thin line between winning and losing, between good teams and great ones. The Spurs know this as well as anyone. They built the foundation for their past three championships by gambling late draft picks on a couple of foreign kids. Manu Ginobili(notes) and Tony Parker(notes) grew into NBA All-Stars.
Ginobili and Parker are also now on the brink of being swept out of the playoffs, and that forces the Spurs to admit something they've rarely had to admit in the Tim Duncan(notes) era: They've been beaten by a better team.
In those seasons where they haven't won championships, the Spurs could almost always point to an injury or a single bad bounce of the ball as conspirators in their demise. Last year, they didn't have Ginobili.
Ginobili also played on a bad foot in their loss to the Lakers in the 2008 West finals, a series that began after the Spurs spent part of their off day sleeping on a tarmac in New Orleans. In '06, it was Ginobili's late foul on Dirk Nowitzki(notes). In '04, Derek Fisher's(notes) .4 shot. The Spurs didn't have David Robinson for the start of their 2002 series against the Lakers. In '01, they didn't have Derek Anderson(notes). When the Suns beat the Spurs in 2000, Duncan didn't play a single game.
The Lakers were the superior team in both those early series, but the Spurs always seemed to end the season one of two ways: holding the championship trophy or wondering, What if? In most years, the Spurs could talk themselves into thinking they were a tweak of an ankle or one or two plays away from winning. Not now. This series has shown only that they're one or two players away.
Parker played the second half of Game 3 with a bad shoulder and is headed for an MRI, but the Suns took control of this series in the first two games against the Spurs' healthy roster. In each of the three games, they beat the Spurs the same way the Spurs used to beat them: winning the fourth quarters with steady defense and sharp execution. The Spurs have struggled to accept that, especially after thinking they had recaptured their championship mojo with a tough first-round victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
No scene summed up the Spurs' disbelief more than the sight of Duncan sitting on the floor in the hallway late Friday, just outside the trainers' room, head down, back against the wall. His coach, Gregg Popovich, stood over him, the two of them trying to figure out what had gone so, so wrong.
"The way they are beating us," Ginobili said, " … it was demoralizing."
More than anything, the Suns have shown they own the deeper, tougher roster. Grant Hill(notes) has played a wonderful series, and the Phoenix bench has produced a new set of heroes each night, from Channing Frye(notes) and Jared Dudley(notes) to Leandro Barbosa(notes) and Dragic.
"We have a few more guys who rely on their intelligence and mental toughness, a few more guys who are defensive-minded," Steve Nash(notes) said, "and I think that's added to the resiliency of our team."
Only three months ago, the Suns stood on the brink of breaking apart their roster. They didn't find a trade offer they liked for Amar'e Stoudemire(notes), but had they entered the deadline with a few more losses tacked onto their record, they might have settled for one. Instead of launching a rebuilding project, the Suns took the first strides in what figures to become a trip to the conference finals. The gap from mediocre to great was that small.
Playoff games, even championships, are sometimes won with the shortest of steps, and another night two years ago points to that. Todd Quinter, the Suns' director of player personnel, had watched Dragic play in Europe and was impressed by his athleticism and toughness. The Suns brought him over for a workout and fell in love. They tried to move as high as No. 31 to draft Dragic but couldn't land a pick until the Spurs sent them No. 45.
It was a prearranged trade, so the Spurs didn't know whom the Suns were taking. Once they learned it was Dragic, some San Antonio officials winced. They, too, had seen Dragic's potential but had already taken another young guard, George Hill(notes), in the first round. When Hill labored in his summer-league debut a few weeks later and Dragic shined, the groans spread to the Spurs' coaching staff.
Hill won over the Spurs soon enough. He's improved steadily and now rates as one of their top six players. He's struggled in this series, but the Spurs wouldn't have beaten the Mavericks without his contributions. There's no shame in the Spurs' decision, especially considering that the future pick they received for Dragic became DeJuan Blair(notes).
Sometimes you hit on a guy, sometimes you miss. The Spurs know this well. They drafted their own left-handed Slovenian in 2004. Beno Udrih(notes) played in the NBA Finals as a rookie, wilted under the pressure, couldn't stay healthy and now plays for the Sacramento Kings.
As recently as a year ago, Dragic didn't look like much himself; a half-season under Terry Porter had shredded his confidence. Not until Gentry became head coach did Dragic's minutes – and self-esteem – receive a boost.
Gentry's message to Dragic: "He said, 'Hey kid, don't worry if you do some mistakes. Just play your game.' "
After Dragic made just two shots in this series' first two games, Gentry had more orders for him: Stay aggressive. The Suns masterfully used their pick-and-rolls to often match their guards against Duncan, and they attacked and attacked. Even more frustrating for the Spurs: The other player who carved up their fourth-quarter defense was Barbosa, whom San Antonio traded to Phoenix seven years ago in another prearranged draft-night deal.
The Suns, too, have realized the sting of such transactions. During the 2006 draft, they traded a pick to the Boston Celtics which became Rajon Rondo(notes). They've been searching for a point guard to spell Nash ever since, which made Friday all the more special. Dragic did most of his work while Nash watched from the bench.
"It might extend Steve's career five or six years if Dragic keeps playing like that," Popovich said.
From the start of the fourth quarter to the final buzzer, the Spurs never found an answer for Dragic. He threw in one last 3-pointer, and as the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Suns poured onto the court and wrapped their young guard in a hug.
"Other than M.J., I don't remember anyone doing anything like that … in a huge game … under pressure … especially a young kid," Kerr said later in the celebratory din of the locker room. "That's ridiculous."
Kerr shook his head. Jesus Christ, Michael Jordan and Goran Almighty. The playoffs have a way of making the most unlikely of heroes. Sometimes it pays to be lucky. It helps even more when you're also the better team.